As a girl, I never dreamt of marrying in the church, yet I will be doing just that in May.
Growing up Southern Baptist in my hometown of Slidell, Louisiana, I received the message early on that gay people were not Christians, and did not love God or family. When my attraction to women became clearer despite my best efforts to ignore it, it didn’t make sense to label myself as a lesbian because I only ever heard the word “lesbian” spit as if a slur.
As young as thirteen, I confided in a best friend my “struggle with same-sex attraction,” a popular term in the early 2000s. There were no examples of gay Christians in my life. In class at my private Christian school, we watched videos of LGBT people at Pride parades and were told that they were promiscuous, unfaithful and predatory. Clearly I, a dedicated Christian, could never belong to such a group. It never occurred to me that one could exist as both gay and Christian.
At my Southern Baptist college, I met other young people who, through organizations like Exodus International, hoped to “fix” their orientations. When Exodus shut down a few years later, we felt totally adrift. The organizations that were supposed to fix us had abandoned us. I tried to date men but failed to feel any kind of attraction. The idea of lifelong celibacy was incredibly depressing; I wanted a family and to be welcome in the body of Christ. I felt I had no choice but to abandon Christianity.
However, I didn’t leave the church because I worked as an organist. The first church to hire me, Fondren Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi, belongs to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Later, I learned that just a year earlier, their Session — the church’s governing body — had overwhelmingly approved same-sex marriages.
At first, I didn’t experience the church as being particularly “liberal,” which I had been taught to equate with godlessness. Because it was a church in Mississippi, I assumed I could never bring the girl I had started dating, I could never tell anyone, and we would certainly never get married.
However, sitting in the organ loft week after week, I enjoyed the messages about love and acceptance. My girlfriend sought to support my music, so she attended occasionally, sat in the back, and didn’t mind it. Occasionally, LGBTQ issues were referenced, but never in a negative way. When a lesbian couple who had been together for 40 years joined the church, my girlfriend and I wondered if the church accepted openly gay people and whether there was a place for us in the body of Christ after all.
When the pastor’s wife called me and invited my girlfriend to the staff Christmas party, both my girlfriend and I wondered if there had been a mistake. We attended, albeit nervously, and were treated like any other couple present.
We learned that Fondren Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi, affirms the dignity of all God’s children. Two years later, after increasing involvement in the church and loving it more and more, we officially joined the church. Our wedding ceremony in May 2018 will offer open-table communion, as the blessed meal has become one of the favorite parts of our growing faith.
As we attempted to plan for the wedding, HB 1523 was passed into law. As a result, we often run into the difficulties of a state in which anyone can refuse to provide wedding-related services. In leasing an apartment, hiring a photographer, locating a reception venue, and of course, purchasing a cake, we have no choice but to call ahead of time and ask whether we will be serviced. We stutter, we dread the calls, we hold our breaths. Responses vary from kind to cruel.
The best responses have taught us to appreciate goodness wherever found. My fiancée wanted to call the fanciest reception venue in town, and I thought for sure that they would refuse. Instead, the person on the other end of the line told us that she’s gay too, and that many LGBTQ people are employed at the Fairview Inn. She shared our excitement and understood our concerns. The property manager at our new apartment complex told us that her uncle is gay and has faced similar judgment, and that she would never run a discriminatory business. A local bakeshop, Campbell’s, “came out” in a newspaper article about serving all customers equally. If not for them, we probably wouldn’t have a wedding cake.
Even before we found a cake, or a photographer, or an apartment, we always had the church in which we could celebrate the Lord’s Supper and marry. Many of the Southern Baptist friends from our college will not be present, but all of our church friends will.
The retired reverend officiating the wedding is an older man, heterosexual, who simply believes that God loves all God’s children. Lifelong civil rights activist Rev. Rims Barber, who serves as our parish associate, initiated Barber v. Bryant—the court case challenging HB 1523. Every day, he works as a lobbyist in the Jackson capitol on behalf of those marginalized by race, religion, orientation, ability, or other factors. When our previous pastor retired, the church called a partnered gay man to continue leadership, and we can empathize with each other about the dirty looks and words thrown at us in restaurants.
The church’s variety of LGBTQIA people of faith and heterosexual allies has enriched our lives, provided us shoulders to cry on when the world rejects my fiancée and me, and offered prayers from like-minded hearts because they understand. Even on days when I rage against the oppressive church, even though willing music professors at my Southern Baptist college are not allowed to sing at my wedding or else they’ll lose their jobs, I come home to my own church family every Sunday.
My church reminds me to have faith in Christ, but also in Christians, and also in Mississippians.
While some oppress, others love, and love always wins.